07/01/2004 11:00PM

Letters to the Editor


Sparing the rod a vital factor in better image

In response to the June 20 letter, "Chalk up loss in Foster to pilot error," about Victor Espinoza's ride of Southern Image in the Stephen Foster Handicap, I would like the writer to prove that whipping a horse increases his performance. I believe that the opposite has been proven, and that the writer's pick four wager was much more important to him than the overuse of the whip.

He wrote that "In the same circumstances, Jorge 'Chop Chop' Chavez would have enabled Southern Image to win. He doesn't 'get cute' before the finish line has been passed." Apparently the writer never saw Laffit Pincay "get cute" with his patented hand ride. It was a thing of beauty. Good riders don't have to depend on the whip.

Our industry has many battles on the horizon in the coming years. Animal rights and abuse will be one of the most important. Whether by whip, syringe, or neglect, we need to clean our own side of the street - now.

I hope the writer saw Peb's caricature of whip-wielding jockeys that appeared the same day as his letter. Maybe he will return as a horse.

Bonnie Heath, III
Bonnie Heath Farm, Ocala, Fla.

Spirit of competition must be shared

In regard to Steven Crist's June 26 column, "It's wrong to pamper Smarty":

I grew up a few miles from Belmont Park and feel nostalgic pangs for the 1970's when the fall schedule at Belmont was one series of Breeders' Cup-worthy fields every weekend in September and October.

The advent of the Breeders' Cup changed that all into a series of preps for the Cup. Not that this is a bad thing for racing, but it has altered the landscape. No more will we see multifaceted champions like Dr. Fager (1968's Horse of the Year by virtue of being champion in the handicap, turf, and sprint divisions), Secretariat (Eclipse-winning 3-year-old, turf horse, and Horse of the Year in 1973), and Forego (older male, sprinter, and Horse of the Year in 1974), as horses compete in only one division.

That being the case, all roads to the Breeders' Cup are usually similar to the roads to the Derby. Top horses rarely face each other until the championship is on the line. If Smarty Jones were to race in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, would top older horses show up, or a collection of Grade 2 and 3 horses looking for second money?

Also, to knock the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority for dangling the Pegasus to lure Smarty Jones is unfair. Secretariat's first race after his Triple Crown triumph was a $125,000 invitational at Arlington Park against three horses. Not so long ago, Cigar traveled for a cool million to Chicago for a similar scenario (maybe the 130 pounds assigned to him enabled Arlington to assemble a field of 10).

Secretariat also competed in the Marlboro Cup (granted against older horses), which was invented as a vehicle for his popularity. Seattle Slew's ill-advised trip to California after his Triple Crown was a result of Hollywood Park doubling the Swaps purse. These tracks all found this purse money more valuable than T-shirts and hats in promotion of our greatest asset: popular champions.

Now maybe, just maybe, if Smarty goes to the Pegasus we may see how racing can do in prime time. If Smarty can make the Haskell, the best 3-year-olds in the nation will be invited. Would we criticize those who run in the lesser purse and grade of the Jim Dandy?

The sporting gesture now lies in the hands of the competition. Smarty will draw a crowd anywhere - if you want to be a part of the buzz, take him on. Marylou Whitney and Nick Zito weren't afraid to take him on in the Belmont with Birdstone, and they were the most apologetic, gracious winners.

The sporting gesture on the part of Smarty Jones's owners, the Chapmans, and his trainer, John Servis, will be to keep Smarty healthy and sound and racing through his 4-year-old season.

Let's hope more owners, trainers, and racetracks (and especially breeders) see the greatest marketing tool in horse racing is horses continuing racing.

Edward Vomacka
Racing Secretary, River Downs

A star in the Pegasus can give wings to TV racing

Steven Crist's June 26 column's concern over the apparent choice by the connections of Smarty Jones of the Pegasus over the Jockey Club Gold Cup is understandable. Ideally, you'd like to see Smarty face his elders before the Breeders' Cup in the Gold Cup, but Smarty in the Pegasus may unintentionally be the best thing for the sport.

While the Pegasus would probably see Smarty Jones as a heavy favorite, if he does go in that race (or the Meadowlands Cup against older horses), and The Meadowlands runs that race on Oct. 2, it could be shown live in prime time on a broadcast network. Given Smarty's popularity and the fact that, except for sporting events, Saturday night television ratings are usually horrific, a Pegasus (or Meadowlands Cup) with Smarty suddenly could become very attractive to NBC in prime time, most likely in a 90-minute telecast from 9:30 to 11 p.m. Eastern that would also include perhaps one race from Santa Anita and a second from The Meadowlands.

The idea of horse racing in prime time at all would have seemed ludicrous even three years ago. With so many changes in the television landscape just since NBC took over the Triple Crown events in 2001, coupled with a surge in popularity for the sport of kings at levels unseen in many years, may make 2004 ideal for horse racing in prime time.

Walter Parker

Handicap weights an essential tradition

In both the "Where handicaps don't belong" section of his June 19 column and his May 8 column, "Why make the best worse," Steven Crist advocated changing all Grade 1 handicaps to weight-for-age events. He used narrow losses to low-weighted opponents by two favored highweights - Southern Image in the Stephen Foster and Azeri in the Humana Distaff - to support the position.

On June 19, Crist wrote, "No other sport tilts the playing field to prevent its best players from winning its most important events." Such a statement diverts attention from the reality that racing is a gambling business as well as a sport.

There are very good reasons why racing has traditionally expected each horse in these events to carry relatively more weight than each of his less-accomplished opponents. It makes the race more competitive, which in turn provides a more interesting betting proposition. It gives near-champions opportunities when champions are not at their best. It can't make the best horse lose, because no one can be certain who the best horse will be when the race is actually run.

Yes, track condition, rider judgment, or some other factor besides weight may have contributed to both losses in question, but I agree the most likely culprits were the 11-pound differentials. And that's okay, because it's the perception that weight does make a difference that encourages trainers to enter unknown quantities and for players to bet on them.

Grade 1 handicaps are functioning as well as intended and are just as important to racing tradition as the Belmont's 12 furlongs.

Steve Abelove
Lawndale, Calif.